Breakthrough for babies born with severe cleft palates

STFC’s ISIS facility and its users, working in partnership with the NHS, developed a novel material to improve the treatment of cleft lip and palate, speeding up healing times and reducing operating costs

6 month old girl before surgery to have her lip repaired.

The same girl, 1 month after the surgery.

Again the same girl, age 5 years old.

Researchers working on a treatment for babies born with cleft palates have made a promising breakthrough. Clefts are the most common birth defect in Britain, with one in every 700 babies affected – that is 1,000 babies per year. Babies born with cleft palates usually have problems feeding, and may have speech difficulties in later life, as well as issues with their hearing, dentition and facial growth and may fail to reach their potential because of low self esteem. In severe cases radical surgery is required, often taking up to ten expensive operations to correct the problem, and future complications can occur as the child grows into an adult.

Cleft palates are currently repaired by surgically repositioning the tissue on the roof of the mouth to cover the gap in the palate. However, if the cleft is too wide there may be insufficient local tissue available to close the gap without undertaking quite radical surgery. It is these severe cases that can cause future complications for infants as they develop into adults – particularly with speech and facial growth problems.

The preliminary results on a new material studied using the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s ISIS neutron source show treatment for these severe cleft palates could be carried out without the need for complex surgery. The new treatment involves inserting a small plate made of a hydrogel material into the roof of the patient’s mouth without the need for complex surgery. The hydrogel developed by Oxford University spin-out Oxtex using STFC’s ISIS Neutron Source gradually expands as fluid is absorbed, encouraging skin growth over and around the insert. When sufficient skin has been generated to repair the palatal cleft, the insert is removed and the cleft is repaired using this additional tissue. Clinical trials have taken place and the company has started manufacturing devices, recently winning an award for its “impressive and rapid” progress to market at the OBN Annual Bioscience Awards.

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